Imagine being invited to a banquet only instead of being escorted to a table draped in damask set with fine china, sterling silver and linen napkins, and adorned with an elegant centerpiece, your host points to the floor and says, “Please have a seat.”
Appalling. For what is a banquet if not a sumptuous feast at which you are treated like royalty?
If that was the expectation of guests at the Oxfam America Hunger Banquet, held recently at DiMillo’s Restaurant in Portland, it was realized by only a few. All guests were asked to pull a ticket from a bowl, which let them know where to sit. About ten were led to a banquet table. The majority had to sit on the floor and the rest? Well, at least they got to sit on chairs.
Oxfam America is an international relief and development organization that works with people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice. For the past 40 years, the organization has been hosting hunger banquets as a powerful way to raise awareness about the inequalities that lead to hunger and poverty.
I was privileged to share the role of Master of Ceremonies at the Portland banquet with Cathy Lee, from Lee International, a Westbrook consulting firm that works exclusively in the area of climate change in Maine, the U.S., and southern Africa. Cathy is also an ambassador for Sisters on the Planet, an Oxfam initiative that brings together hundreds of women leaders from the business, government, arts, philanthropic, and faith communities to help women worldwide create solutions to poverty, hunger, and climate change.
The banquet was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and of women farmers worldwide who, according to Oxfam America representative Sarah Kalloch, “with just a little support are able to feed their families and communities, educate their children, and help drive economic growth.”
Women like Elcida Estinata, whose family was impacted by the quake in Haiti. Elcida participated in an Oxfam supported training on beekeeping and is now able to send her children to school with the money she makes from her honey harvest.
Guests heard stories about the value of support and also gained an understanding of what it might mean to lead a hand to mouth existence. Literally.
Before anyone can eat, Cathy and I have to share the rules. Those seated at the banquet table represent the world’s wealthiest — roughly 15% of the population — people who want for nothing. These guests will be served a full course meal.
The middle income group seated in chairs represents 35% of the population, whose means vary greatly. In real life, these people totter on the edge. It wouldn’t take much — a drought in Africa, a serious illness and no health insurance in the United States — to throw them into poverty. They will serve themselves rice, beans, and water from a buffet table.
People seated on the floor represent the majority of the world’s population who, with an average annual income of less than $900, struggle every single day just to meet their families’ basic needs. They will help themselves to rice from a communal bowl set before them on the floor.
As Susan Violet waited her turn to spoon rice from the communal bowl, she worried that there wouldn’t be enough to go around. “I tried not to take too much,” Susan shared during a time of reflection. “I’m the Executive Director of the Wayside Food Program. I am all too well aware of the scarcity of food right here in Maine.”
At the banquet table, guests squirmed with embarrassment at the abundance of food on their plates, wondering if it was acceptable to share with the other groups. Faye Luppi, Project Director at the Violence Intervention Partnership, wished she could hide. “I really wanted to climb under the table and was quite uncomfortable with a large plate of food. I wanted to find a way to share that did not make others with less food lose their dignity. In the work that I do with victims of domestic violence, economic justice is a very important component.”
Carol Landry attended the banquet because Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a Sisters on the Planet ambassador, was the keynote speaker and she wanted to hear what she had to say. She realized it wasn’t your typical banquet when she volunteered to play the role of a woman from El Salvador whose family can no longer fish because of climate changes and now struggles to put food on the table. Carol was invited to move from the middle income to the low income group. “I’m on a macrobiotic diet, so I was happy to eat rice. I would have been lost at the banquet table. But still, I felt like an elitist. I never worry about having enough money to buy food or having enough to eat. It’s hard to imagine not being able to provide for your family.”
The Hunger Banquet clearly had a compelling effect on people, but we all know how easy it might be to feel inspired only to go home and fix a meal to curb your own gnawing hunger — and forget.
The enduring message Oxfam America hopes to leave behind is to get involved. Join Oxfam and help support the work they are doing or, if nothing else, keep “continuing the conversation on how we can work together to end hunger and poverty worldwide.”